Opinions split on Daventry Canal Arm as decision on funding nears

The proposed Canal Arm would, once complete, join the Grand Union Canal
The proposed Canal Arm would, once complete, join the Grand Union Canal

Daventry District Council’s Canal Arm has split opinion since a strategy group approved a recommendation for funding of the first phase of the longstanding project.

An advisory parish poll years ago saw people vote against the proposal, protests were held outside the civic buildings ahead of the strategy meeting and will resume at tonight’s full council meeting.

Protests were held outside the civic buildings ahead of the July strategy group meeting in which the recommendation for funding was backed by councillors.

Protests were held outside the civic buildings ahead of the July strategy group meeting in which the recommendation for funding was backed by councillors.

Even satirical fortnightly magazine Private Eye reported on the funding in their pages with a level of disbelief and hilarity.

Voices in support of the ambitious project have been hard to find in the online domain, which has predominantly been the opinion board for those unwilling to see public money spent on a canal they do not want to see.

Topics of complaints have been varied. Some have said reinstating an outdoor pool would be a better use of funds, others have predicted the project will remain incomplete leaving behind either stagnant water or a ditch.

The leading grievance, however, has simply been an outright objection to the Canal Arm as a whole, echoing the parish poll.

Tonight’s full meeting of district council members will feature a vote on whether to accept the strategy group’s funding recommendation.

A motion put forward by Labour councillors Wendy Randall and Ken Ritchie on the ‘Vision for Daventry’ will be debated beforehand, which will question whether external funding will be secured, and suggests intensive discussions with residents should be held.

Cllr Randall branded the Canal Arm a “ludicrous idea” during the strategy group meeting and town councillor Aiden Ramsey, Daventry’s Labour’s candidate in June’s General Election, considers the project a gamble.

He said: “In the past it was always maintained that it would never be public money that would be spent, and now the current plans to build this section with nearly £9m of local taxpayers money out of the reserves, for no guarantee that any further funding is going to come, just seems such a ridiculous gamble.”

Daventry Town Council has written to district council chief executive Ian Vincent asking for an independent cost/benefit and risk analysis report, given the amount of public funds which could be spent.

DDC is likely to respond by saying the money will be reimbursed via the Community Infrastructure Levy, but Mr Ramsey was nonetheless suspicious of the lack of investment.

“It’s been 12 years and they haven’t had any investors come forward so far for any of it, so there’s got to be a reason for that.

“They say they expect funding to be incoming once they build it but that’s not a guarantee that anyone has said that, it’s just what they hope will happen.”

One resident who likes the idea of the canal is Nick Gent, 81, who has lived in the area since 2006 including two years on a narrow boat.

“Daventry is near Braunston which is the centre of the British canal system,” said Mr Gent.

“Once a year they have a meeting of canal boats at Braunston and I’m sure that can be linked to Daventry. They have a lot of boats there and lots of money changes hands.”

Mr Gent believes that the project would bring labour into the town and would eventually make Daventry a centre for boating as there would be space for mooring.

The plans also include the installation of a boat lift which, in Mr Gent’s view, would be an attraction for tourists.

“If it’s going to have a result in the end I think it could be a good investment,” he said.

“I think the town should look on it as an investment rather than a lot of money spent on something they don’t really want.”

Future investment is the driving force behind the creation of the canal.

Labour councillors have called for money to be spent on the redevelopment of Bowen Square, or to be put towards new houses.

But Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris says that an initial outlay looks necessary in order for future investments to be secured. In other words, build it and they will come.

However, he remained adamant that, if possible, taxpayers’ money should not be spent.

“I’m in favour of it [the Canal Arm] in principle but I want as little public money spent on it as possible,” he said.

“I want money to come from private sources if it’s to go ahead.”

Mr Heaton-Harris also made clear he had not been invited to a meeting of the Daventry Canal Association for several years, and therefore did not believe he had a role within the group any more.

This was confirmed by Dean Hawkey, chairman of the association, who said Mr Heaton-Harris was nominally the president but no longer gets involved with the group.

Mr Hawkey supports the Canal Arm project. In a letter to this newspaper he addressed the argument that Daventry was not attractive enough to draw in canal boaters.

He said: “If the town centre waterspace is developed to a high standard, then I believe it will be a major success, encouraging further investment in the town by businesses; and the attraction of visitors to our shops, and tourists to our hotels and restaurants.

“To do nothing will condemn Daventry to many more years of stagnation.”

Backing up the build it and they will come theory, his letter also stated: “People have asked, what is the point of building only a section of the canal that doesn’t connect with the Grand Union Canal? The answer is, that virtually all restorations and new builds are done in stages, as funding becomes available.

“Canals are long-term projects. Some have taken years to be built, but see how long they have lasted.

“This requires a large financial outlay initially, but the return over decades – and even centuries – will be enormous, in comparison.”